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Insider's Perspective: The Bebop Revolution

Musicians playing in middle of crowd

Charlie Parker's band performing in a club (undated)

Album sleeve

The record sleeve for an album of Dizzy Gillespie and Charley Christian (New York: Esoteric, 1953).

When Bebop first came to the jazz scene in the early 1940s, dancers were bewildered, critics were angered, and many musicians were confused by it. Tommy Dorsey claimed, "Bebop has set music back 20 years." Louis Armstrong complained that beboppers were playing wrong chords, and a prominent New York critic said, "Bebop sounds to me like a hardware store in an earthquake."

The Ransom Center's current exhibition On the Road with the Beats features a section on jazz and Bebop and addresses its influence on Beat writers. Visitors can listen to examples of Bebop, jazz, and spoken poetry at iPod listening stations set up in the Ransom Center Galleries.

Bebop was a radical departure for jazz music: it emphasized faster tempos, off-the-beat phrasing, and polyrythms; frequent use of ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth chords; and ensemble passages played in unison rather than in conventional harmonies.

By the mid-1940s, Bebop began attracting more attention, both for the music itself and for the dress and manner of the key players, which were emulated by a whole group of young people known as "hipsters," sporting berets, dark glasses, and goatees. At the same time, African Americans were beginning to agitate for more social change, and Bebop came to be linked with their growing sense of pride in being black and with their rejection of the status quo.

Perhaps the greatest improviser and pioneer of Bebop was saxophonist Charlie Parker. Born in 1920 in Kansas City—a mecca for jazz and blues during the 1920s and 1930s—Parker not only brought lasting changes to the way of playing jazz through his use of altered rhythms and harmonics, but he also produced a body of music that became closely identified with the idea of jazz as a personal and intellectual modern music forum.

The Ransom Center's Ross Russell collection contains one of the most complete assemblages of recordings by Charlie Parker. A jazz collector, producer, critic, and biographer, Russell recorded major Bebop innovators such as Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Howard McGhee, and Wardell Gray on his independent label Dial Records. Not only was Russell one of the earliest and most enthusiastic promoters of Bebop, but he also had a great interest in contemporary classical music. Between 1949 and 1951, when larger record companies were showing very little interest in modern music, Russell accomplished a remarkable feat, producing a number of quality recordings of important works by major composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, Béla Bartók, and Igor Stravisnsky. The Ransom Center acquired Russell's archive in 1981.

 

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